George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Timothy Pickering, 19 July 1796

Department of State July 19. 1796.


I have the honor to inclose for your information a copy of the letter I sent this day to the Minister of the French Republic, in answer to his enquiry relative to the prohibition of the sale of prizes brought by French armed vessels into the ports of the United States. I presume the answer will preclude any reply; the [rather] because similar ideas have been formally reported to the council of Ancients at Paris, and will probably be adopted. The rights of neutral nations, and particularly of the United States, as they have been maintained by the Executive from the commencement of the war between France and Britain, are recognized in the report. The reporter, Mr Marbois, is supposed to be the same who was in America with the Chevalier de la Luzerne. With the highest respect I am, sir, your most obt servant

Timothy Pickering.

DNA: RG 59—ML—Miscellaneous Letters.


Department of State July 19. 1796.


I have to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 14th instant in answer to mine of the 1st. You embraced the occasion to communicate the information you had received from the Consul at Boston, that the Collector of the Customs there has prevented the unloading & selling of the prizes carried into that port by two French privateers, grounding his proceeding on a letter received from me. And you enquire whether the President has given orders to prevent the sale of prizes carried into the ports of the United States by vessels of the Republic, or privateers armed under its authority? and on what foundation the prohibition rests? I will be very frank, sir, in answering these questions, after making some preliminary observations.

The question about the sale of prizes is not a new one. It was agitated, and the point of right settled, in the year 1793. Among the State papers communicated to Congress at the close of that year, and which have been published, is a letter from Mr Jefferson to Mr Morris dated the 16th of August, in which is the following passage: "The 17th article of our treaty (meaning with France) leaves armed vessels free to conduct whithersoever they please, the ships & goods taken from their enemies, without paying any duty, and to depart and be conducted freely to the places expressed in their commissions, which the captain shall be obliged to shew. It is evident that this article does not contemplate [as] freedom to sell their prizes here; but, on the contrary, a departure to some other place, always to be expressed in their commission, where their validity is to be finally adjudged. In such case, it would be as unreasonable to demand duties on the goods they had taken from an enemy, as it would be on the cargo of a merchant vessel touching in our ports for refreshment or advices. And against this the article provides. But the armed vessels of France have been also admitted to land & sell their prize goods here for consumption; in which case it is as reasonable they should pay duties as the goods of a merchantman landed and sold for consumption. They have, however, demanded, and as a matter of right, to sell them free of duty; a right, they say, given by this article of the treaty, though the article does not give the right to sell at all."

It is plain that France understood this 17th article in the same sense. And accordingly, in her treaty of commerce with Great Britain, in 1786, she entered into a stipulation which in case of a war between the U. States & Great Britain, would have prevented the vessels of the U. States from arming as privateers or selling their prizes, in the ports of France. In like manner the United States, in their commercial treaty with Great-Britain, agreed on a similar prohibition. Indeed the 24th article of the latter treaty is but a translation of the 16th between France & Great-Britain.

Under this view of the case, sir, as soon as provision was made on both sides to carry into effect the treaty between the U. States & Great-Britain, it behoved the Government of the former to countermand the permission formerly given to French Privateers to sell their prizes in our ports. Such sales, you have seen, the U. States had always a right to prohibit; and by the abovementioned stipulation this right became a duty. These, sir, are the foundations of the orders which have been given to prevent the sale of the prizes lately carried into Boston by French privateers, to which you refer; it being understood that the prizes were British property. Those orders have since been made general, and communicated to the Collectors in all the ports of the United States. But at present, those orders are confined to prizes brought into our ports by privateers. I have the honor to be, with great respect, sir, your most obt servant

Timothy Pickering.

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